First-Person Pronouns

Many readers, many graders in particular, have strong opinions about which personal pronouns are acceptable in academic writing. The easiest way to avoid irking your audience is to avoid "I," "we," and "you," (the first and second person pronouns) in formal papers. No one is likely to object if you take that route. There are, however, times when the first or second person can be appropriate in your writing.

The First Person
I

Use of I is most acceptable when you are relating a personal anecdote. This can be an effective way to write an introduction. For example:

I died without ever knowing true love. My family buried me in Alaska and promptly tried to forget about me. The decaying caribou next door is my only remaining friend. We play cribbage on the weekends. If not for the cribbage, we would have nothing but being dead in common.

This (obviously fictional) anecdote might serve well as an introduction to a paper on the importance of card games as social events. Placing the narrative in first person heightens the emotional impact of the story.

In contrast, it is rarely advisable to introduce a thesis with I. Consider this example:

I believe that computers should be banned due to the risk they pose to all mankind in the potential for an electronic anti-human revolt.

This sentence is phrased as a personal opinion rather than an authoritative statement. Most readers, however, expect a paper to present an authoritative and factually supported thesis, not a mere opinion. There may be a place for such an opinion in a conclusion or in a less formal paper. But in general, this use of I should be avoided.

We

We is a collective pronoun that includes you (the author) as well as the audience. For this reason, it provides a relatively friendly way to give advice. For example:

We should recycle more orange peels to save the environment.

Admittedly, this phrasing is a bit informal. But other ways of writing the same idea may be awkward or lack the personal resonance of we.

People should recycle more orange peels to save the environment.

See what I mean? The formal phrasing is somewhat awkward. Moreover, in this version, it's less clear that the statement applies to the reader (and to the author). The appeal for collective action is less immediate and forceful.

In deciding whether to use we, consider how you want to interact with your audience. Are you trying to create a feeling of equality or common purpose? If so, we may be appropriate. On the other hand, readers may object if you blithely assume that they share all your opinions. "We all know . . ." can be grating if, in fact, we don't. In general, we works best if you save it for your most important points. Don't overdo it.

Also, please note that referring to yourself in the plural is pretentious unless you are, in fact, royalty. And pretense is no way to create a welcoming tone for our readers, now is it?

Personal Pronouns

Go back to Table of Contents